It didn’t take long for video games to become a huge cultural force. Now worth roughly double the film industry, gaming is massive – and by its very nature, it stays at the forefront of technology. Alongside advances in graphics, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence, cloud gaming services have seen major developments in recent years.

Now, it has the potential to revolutionise the way video games are played.

What is cloud gaming?

Also known as gaming on-demand or ‘games as a service’, cloud-based gaming can be boiled down to the simple idea of applying cloud computing to games. Using a cloud server you can stream multiplayer games with ease. While connectivity is always improving, the idea of cloud-based gaming isn’t exactly new. It can be traced at least as far back as 2000, and a variety of cloud gaming projects have come and gone since then.

From old school consoles, such as the ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s, to the latest consoles and PC graphics cards, hardware has always been a huge part of gaming. But while this hardware is usually found sitting on a desk or under a TV, cloud gaming is fundamentally different. Instead of running games on physical devices, cloud-based services do all the processing at another location, potentially hundreds of miles away.

Of course, cloud gamers still need a connection to the server, but because there’s no need for onboard gaming capabilities, virtually any internet-enabled device will work – whether it’s a tablet, a laptop, smart TV or a smartphone. Specialised, low-powered devices or ‘thin clients’ are also available – gaming-optimised streaming boxes that can, in theory, turn any screen into a high-performance games machine.

The benefits of cloud gaming

There are many advantages to using the cloud, and it has done a lot for the gaming industry. But what benefits can you expect if you take part in cloud gaming?

Cost: The newest gaming hardware doesn’t come cheap. Consoles can cost hundreds of pounds, tricked-out PCs cost even more, and that’s before you pay for the games themselves. But, by connecting to devices in the cloud, costs are reduced to a subscription fee, and the provider takes on all the responsibilities of maintaining high-end gaming systems.

Security: It’s possible that you haven’t given much thought to security measures whilst gaming online, but they actually do a lot to protect you against other players. Stored on a secure server, gaming through the cloud eliminates any security issues. So you don’t have to worry about unauthorised breaches whilst you’re gaming online.

Device compatibility: Gaming technology is constantly evolving, and upgrading hardware every few years is mandatory to enjoy the latest titles – and this can get expensive. But with cloud gaming, you can play high end games on practically any device. So say goodbye to the limitations of traditional gaming and hello to a seamless gaming experience on any device.

On-demand gaming: Cloud gaming is often described as ‘Netflix for games’, and there are certainly parallels with millions of viewers now accessing content on remote servers. Gaming on-demand is just another aspect of cloud computing in general, but it certainly makes playing a lot easier.

What are the issues with cloud gaming?

It’s easy to identify the drawbacks of cloud gaming, such as its vulnerability to outages and hacking, as well as the potential for corporate abuse when the user doesn’t actually ‘own’ the hardware or software they access. However, the critical piece of the cloud gaming puzzle is latency.

A data centre can have the most powerful, cutting-edge hardware running the latest titles at ultra-high settings and framerates. But ultimately the user’s experience will always depend on the speed of their connection. For first-person shooters, fighting games and other titles in genres that demand twitchy reflexes and split-second responses, even milliseconds of input delay can seriously disadvantage players and sour their experience. Games depend on real-time interactions, so any lag between a button press and the action playing out is detrimental. Tolerable latency varies across genres, but for fast-paced shooters and action games, it needs to be kept to an absolute minimum to ensure a playable experience.

This is where cloud gaming services have fallen down historically. In the past, bandwidth just wasn’t high enough to deliver responsive gameplay. While current technology and internet speeds aren’t quite ready to offload whole games to the cloud, there’s still huge potential to enhance gaming performance via the internet. Some developers are using the cloud to process parts of games that don’t require immediate feedback, such as background images and environments.

How has cloud gaming been improved?

5G broadband is seen as a key enabler and contributor to the improvement of cloud gaming – relatively high numbers of users are now in a position to take full advantage of remotely hosted gaming services. That said, it’s important to remember that high-speed internet is far from widespread even in developed markets like the US, where poor connectivity and bandwidth caps are still issues for many users.

Will cloud gaming become mainstream?

These historical cloud gaming services, while innovative, were always somewhat niche. But will cloud-based gaming go mainstream any time soon? Both Microsoft and Google announced forays into the sector, with their trials ‘Project xCloud’ and ‘Project Stream’ respectively. They both decided to follow this up with Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass and the less than successful Google Stadia.

Even Nintendo, a far more traditional gaming brand, has established some major cloud inroads on its platforms. Streamed versions of demanding games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Resident Evil 7 – originally designed for Xbox, PlayStation and PC – are becoming available on the comparatively weak Nintendo Switch hardware. If the actions of the major players are anything to go by, gaming on-demand could gain serious traction over the next decade.

What is the future of cloud gaming?

Looking forward then, what are the long-term implications of cloud-based gaming? To say that it could be disruptive is a huge understatement.

The gaming industry is currently built on the assumption of home hardware, with the two main console platforms acting as gatekeepers between games publishers and their audience. A cloud-dominated market could make publishers far less dependent on an installed base of machines, and could even end up with every major publisher running cloud gaming services. Microsoft and Sony will continue to invest heavily in their own cloud offerings and in-house development studios, no doubt. But will video game consoles even exist in a decade’s time? Though not related to cloud-based gaming directly, it’s interesting to note that Sony’s new PS5 only permits downloaded digital games rather than featuring a disc slot.

For the moment, traditional consoles are more popular than ever, but it’s not a stretch to imagine them dying out. Cloud gaming technology is rapidly maturing to the point where it could easily become the mainstream option, even if others continue to exist for enthusiasts. Similar to how film buffs still seek out physical media and music fans still spend thousands on record collections, specialised hardware will probably always have a place in the homes of hardcore gamers.

But Netflix subscriptions beat Blu-ray sales, and Spotify users outnumber vinyl geeks. Games, as the less established and more technologically demanding medium, are just taking a bit longer to make the jump. All the signs point to cloud-based gaming becoming the new normal – and there’s everything to play for.

Have gamers accepted cloud gaming?

Strong development of technology is one thing, but cultural approval is a roadblock in itself. From controversies surrounding ‘online-only’ single-player games like SimCity and Diablo 3 to the ‘always online’ debate overshadowing the Xbox One announcement in 2013 – gamers have a tradition of scepticism when it comes to cloud-based services.

Services like Shadow and LiquidSky provide a thin client or app that connects to a complete gaming PC, rather than just an instance of a game. In this ‘gaming PC as a service’ model, each customer gets a whole machine with virtualised processor cores and memory and a dedicated high-performance GPU. It’s then up to the user to install and run any games or applications of their choice. This approach sidesteps some of the traditional objections to cloud gaming by giving the user full control of their software. Games can still be purchased independently, and files can be managed and modified as if they were on a local desktop.

For even more expert insights, explore the latest on our blog. Or if you’re interested in owning your own cloud server, get in touch with our sales team today to discuss your options.